STEPHEN KNIGHT The Politics of Myth. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
Here is a richly informative, scholarly and entertaining discussion of culture and myth.
Our media-doused world is constantly fed stories concerning celebrities and other public figures reflecting various mythic tales and characters; stories of rags to riches, grieving widows, overarching warriors, wise men and tragic beauties are the stuff of daily communication. Discussions of myth frequently deal with the ways in which characters, both real and imaginary, fit into mythic pantheons such as those of the Norse, the Greeks, tales of the early Sky Gods, and so on. Myth, and its often brutal and/or sentimental companion, fairy story, is used by creative workers to add transcendence and significance to many narratives.
Stephen Knight, however, is not so much concerned with analysing the stories concerning the characters, as with the ways society has used these characters to reflect values and feed the zeitgeist. The word ‘politics’ in the book’s title is the key to his approach:
The myths of a culture also have two evaluative positions – they seem both distant and ethereal by not being bluntly realistic, but at the same time they are insistently present, and provide ways of thinking about the structures, values and human roles within the societies that live and realise themselves through that culture.
The book examines nine well-known characters through three lenses; those of power, rebellion and knowledge. King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth the First and Queen Guinevere are explored in relation to power. Robin Hood, Jeanne D’Arc and Ned Kelly show the ways in which society used and uses them to play with notions of resistance, and Merlin, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes are chosen to look at the way knowledge manifests through myths reflected in our cultures.
Because it is packed with the extensive research of a lifetime, the book is extremely meaty. I found it best to read each section as though it was a freestanding essay as the thought-provoking detail is pretty overwhelming. The work is perhaps really a textbook and a demanding one at that, but general readers should love it, as it is charmingly and wittily written and full of interest.
Knight’s approach is not only an exploration of the literature concerning each myth, he has given us a serious look at history. I hadn’t really understood the politics that produced Jeanne D’Arc and although many of the contemporary writers seemed unduly obsessed by the fact that she wore trousers, one learns quite a lot about the times. The milieu and the political needs that produced the writings about each character are alluded to, but I confess that I wanted more explanation as to why that precise time in history produced that particular response. Rather a big ask, I know, given how rich the text is already.
Examples of this richness are the carefully observed aspects of gender and its manifestation in the writings concerning the three women in the context of their times. They all challenged male authority in various ways and the way that they are represented reflects this:
Elizabeth was for the eighteenth century a high-class good time girl and for the late nineteenth century an embarrassingly aged monarch, just like the real queen of the period.
Elizabeth’s power was a threat to many of the writers of her time and later. Guinevere too, wielded power, as well as symbolising passion and sexual attraction: both issues that exercise opinions about the role of women today. Knight shows how she first appears in a Welsh prose story in the 11th century, where she is that wonderful thing, a ‘Giant’s daughter’, and he traces her development through an analysis of medieval stories up to the present times. He discusses at some length her treatment by Chrétien de Troyes, who represents her as both a powerful royal and a fallible and passionate lover: ‘Chrétien’s power was to condense the grandeur and the passion into one figure of sublime power and contradiction.’
Guinevere has been represented as a royal beauty, a healer or adviser, and an exemplar of human passion in various ways that demonstrate these contradictions. All the characters have many contradictions, which is of course what makes them such useful tools for examining the cultural reservoir. For example, Knight also shows how contemporary figures carry aspects of Guinevere’s myth:
The myth is still potently available for creators to use to interpret the world they share with their audiences. And the myth is still deeply understood. The grieving, graceful and wisdom-disseminating figure of Jackie Kennedy was precisely that of the Surviving Queen, as those who after his death pressed the name Camelot on John F. Kennedy’s Washington seem to have recognised. And even more dramatically, throughout the 1990s Princess Diana traced in considerable detail the path of the Fallible Queen, including healing powers in her work with AIDS victims, and she was celebrated nationally as a figure rich in mythic meaning, bringing as Guinevere does in all her forms both support and challenge to the world of male authority.
Knight applies a similar intense analysis to all his subjects; Ned Kelly’s contradictory aspects, as well as Robin Hood’s slippery representations, are all examined. The idea that myths and their contradictions are continually available for societies to tease their way through contentious issues is thoroughly and enjoyably explored. The mythic aspects of Shakespeare are, however, not so obvious to me; Merlin fits into certain archetypes and Sherlock Holmes’s role as the wise but imperfect man is clear, but Shakespeare is mythic only with an oblique glance. Yet Knight is able to use theoretical work developed by Lord Raglan, based on the work of Otto Rank, to demonstrate that Shakespeare does amass quite a few of the required traits of myth. (There are 22 traits listed in the opening chapter – including mother-as-royal-virgin, an infant surviving a murder attempt or raised by foster parents, marriage to a princess and mysterious death – which give a structural framework to Knight’s subsequent arguments.)
This book is a rewarding read: richly informative, scholarly and entertaining.
Stephen Knight The Politics of Myth Melbourne University Press 2015 PB 256pp $32.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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